Laid-off workers who were ordered by the Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) to repay retirement payouts given to them 16 years ago as loans yesterday launched a hunger strike in front of the council’s headquarters in Taipei, demanding it withdraw the lawsuits against the workers who did not pay and calling for a review of the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法).
“We are not asking the council to do much, only to revise Article 28 of the Labor Standards Act. We are not asking you to do much, only to withdraw lawsuits against these laid-off workers,” Lai Hsiang-ling (賴香伶) spokeswoman of Raged Citizens Act Now told the crowd during a rally before the hunger strike started.
“Why is the government going after these elderly, retired workers who are mostly economically disadvantaged instead of chasing fugitives who have committed financial crimes that have a much larger impact on society?” she said.
Article 28 stipulates that unpaid salaries take priority in debt repayment after a company declares bankruptcy. However, activists and workers want retirement and severance payments to be added to the clause and be given the same degree of repayment priority.
She said that if the government does not respond positively to the protesters’ demands, unionists and activists would mull launching a large-scale strike.
Many factories in the textile or electronics industries closed in 1996, leaving hundreds of laid-off workers without retirement payouts or months of unpaid wages.
After a series of demonstrations, the council decided to give the laid-off workers retirement payouts as loans, and promised that it would ask the workers’ employers to repay the debts.
However, beginning last year, all workers who accepted the loans were asked to repay them, and those who are unable to repay them were sued by the council.
Lin Tzu-wen (林子文), one of the protesters, said he had taken part in a hunger strike in front of the council building 16 years ago.
“Twenty-eight hours into the hunger strike 16 years ago, council officials finally came out to negotiate with us, and eventually came up with the loan program,” Lin said. “Apparently the council lied to us about not asking us to repay, so here we are again.”
He added that by taking part in the hunger strike, he and his peers were turning their bodies into a channel of protest, “because we workers have nothing left but our bodies.”
The protest was largely peaceful. However, clashes broke out between the protesters and the police because the council would not allow the protesters to use the toilets inside the building.
Workers then set up their own temporary toilets using a large banner, plastic chairs and garbage bags.
However, when some protesters tried to use the toilets, police officers confiscated their equipment, and said the protesters were violating the Assembly and Parade Act (集會遊行法).
The police later agreed to help negotiate with the council to allow the protesters to use the toilets.